9th Circ. Rules Against Tying Drinking To Moral Character
By Allissa Wickham
March 24, 2016
The Ninth Circuit on Thursday ruled that a section of immigration law blocking people with alcoholism from being found to have “good moral character” was unconstitutional, vacating a decision that said a Mexican citizen was ineligible for voluntary departure or cancellation of removal.
In a 2-1 ruling, the Ninth Circuit deemed unconstitutional a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that says “habitual drunkards” shouldn’t be viewed as people with good moral character, basing its ruling on equal protection grounds.
“We hold that, under the Equal Protection Clause, a person’s medical disability lacks any rational relation to his classification as a person with bad moral character, and that [the section] is therefore unconstitutional,” wrote Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt in a stinging opinion for the majority.
The court therefore vacated an immigration board decision against petitioner Salomon Ledezma-Cosino that had found he wasn’t eligible for cancellation of removal or voluntary departure because he didn’t have good moral character as a “habitual drunkard.”
“We are well past the point where it is rational to link a person’s medical disability with his moral character,” Judge Reinhardt wrote.
According to the ruling, Ledezma-Cosino is a Mexican citizen who came to the U.S. without authorization in 1997, and has several children, including some who are U.S. citizens. He’s also a “chronic alcoholic,” with a history of drinking an average of a liter of tequila per day, the opinion said.
Immigration authorities detained Ledezma-Cosino in 2008, and he later sought cancellation of removal or voluntary departure. The immigration judge denied relief, and the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed on the basis that he wasn’t eligible, since he didn’t have good moral character as a “habitual drunkard,” according to the opinion.
But the Ninth Circuit held that the lack of a “rational relationship” between a medical condition and bad moral character makes any classification grounded in that relationship an Equal Protection Clause violation. And while the government had asserted the law doesn’t target a status – meaning alcoholism – but symptoms, like excessive drinking, the majority was unpersuaded.
“Just as a statute targeting people who exhibit manic and depressive behavior would be, in effect, targeting people with bipolar disorder … a statute targeting people who habitually and excessively drink alcohol is, in effect, targeting individuals with chronic alcoholism,” Judge Reinhardt said.
The majority held that there is no rational basis for classifying individuals with chronic alcoholism as people who lack good moral character. However, Circuit Judge Richard Clifton dissented, saying the rational basis test has a “very low bar,” and that the INA statute should “easily” clear it.
“Properly applied, rational basis review ‘is a paradigm of judicial restraint.’ … Regrettably, the majority opinion is not,” Judge Clifton wrote. “It is an unwarranted intrusion on separation of powers, and it demands correction.”
Nora Elizabeth Milner of Milner & Markee LLP, who represents Ledezma-Cosino, told Law360 she was “thrilled” about the ruling, and that another firm has already reached out to her seeking to be possible co-counsel. That firm believes the government will likely take the case to the Supreme Court, Milner said.
“I just can’t see that the government is going to roll over on this,” she predicted.
A representative for the U.S. Department of Justice said the agency was declining to comment beyond the filings of the government.
The judges on the panel were Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, Circuit Judge Richard Clifton and District Judge Miranda M. Du, sitting by designation.
Salomon Ledezma-Cosino is represented by Nora Elizabeth Milner, senior trial attorney at Milner & Markee LLP.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch is represented by Lisa Damiano, a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The case is Salomon Ledezma-Cosino v. Loretta E. Lynch, case number 12-73289, at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.